As is true for many, my
relationship with my father has been a pivotal one in my development. It
roughly sorts into two phases: a) the first 17 years of my life, which
covers birth through when I left home for college; and the next 23,
which takes me from my Carleton years until his unexpected death of a
heart attack in 1989, at age 72.
As I tend to access memories using the LIFO inventory system (last in, first out), I recall the college years and beyond more vividly. They were mainly a stormy time, when my values and life philosophy individuated and diverged from those of my father. He was disappointed in me, and I was frustrated that I could never gain his acceptance for having made different choices.
Ironically, by the time our relationship had progressed into open warfare I had already been deeply steeped in the self-confidence he instilled in me, which allowed me to sustain an independent identity without his approbation. Having grown up in the Depression (he was born in 1917), my father's options for higher education and job prospects were sharply limited, and he was determined that his kids would have more choice. While he succeeded in that ambition, I think he was dismayed and saddened by what I chose. As a successful entrepreneur himself, he expected his son with the high SAT scores to parlay opportunity into an appointment as a midshipmen of industry (as a stepping stone toward the captaincy he foresaw as my destiny).
It didn't work out that way.
Instead, I got interested in social justice and group dynamics. Cooperative living appealed to my sensibilities far more than the competitive rat race, and I retired from the 9-5, M-F treadmill at the advanced age of 23. Mind you, I've never been allergic to work; I've just never been motivated by material gain.
For most of the years since my father died, I've been busy continuing down the path of community. When I thought of him at all, it was mostly in the context of what I left behind, and how much I rued the squabbling and sarcastic repartee that characterized our interactions from college onward. I knew I didn't want to be like him.
In the last half dozen years, however—and especially as I've gotten within range of the age that he died—my memories of Dad have softened. For one thing, I've come to see that I am like him in many ways.
o My enthusiasm for work & making a meaningful contribution
o My high standards for quality
o My love of words
o My delight in games
o My enjoyment of professional sports, baseball especially
o How I like vacations to be a mix of time off tempered by 2-3 hours of concentrated work
o We both were comfortable manifesting money (though I've applied my talents mainly in the nonprofit field and he worked the other side of the aisle emphasizing private accumulation, there's no doubt that we were both entrepreneurial)
o We even both smoked cigars
o We both were people with strong feelings who wrestled with anger and worked hard as adults to find ways to be more tender and less harsh
This past week I established a different connection with my father, in a place I wasn't expecting to find it. Let me tell you the story...
In working with our marriage counselor Ma'ikwe and I were excited to bring to her an example of how we'd gotten stuck the week before. After being apart for three days we started filling each other in on what had happened during the interregnum. Ma'ikwe had just concluded three days of retreat that ended on something of a sour note and she was pretty tired.
I started relating some of the struggles I was having managing various aspects of my FIC responsibilities and that triggered a critical analysis from Ma'ikwe about how it might be time for the old lions to step down and get fresh blood. While that's a good topic and one I've been exploring, in that moment I was looking for support and understanding from my partner as I related in an unguarded way what I was wrestling with. I felt blindsided. For her part she felt I was being defensive and closed to considering tough choices. When I considered my options for expressing anything other than complete agreement with her position and having that be a constructive exchange, I felt completely hopeless—which was why it was an excellent dynamic to bring to our counselor.
While I suppose we deserve partial credit for realizing fairly quickly that we were in dangerous waters and stopped before we inflicted much damage, we were both tender after the failed attempt.
When the counselor asked me what I was feeling once Ma'ikwe and I got stuck, my response was overwhelm and despair. Her inspiration in that moment was to ask me to work with her on a guided visualization, on the theory that it might be useful to know more about the roots of my feeling overwhelmed.
In an open-ended way she asked me to go back to any point in my childhood and see what surfaced. Surprisingly (at least to me—I'm not sure our counselor is ever surprised) the image that popped up was one from the summer of 1958 when I was eight years old and just returned from four weeks at summer camp in northern Minnesota. That time had been, by far, the longest stretch I'd ever been away from family and my father took time off work (which was noteworthy even to me as an eight-year-old) to pick me up at Union Station in Chicago when I returned.
My Dad took me out to eat and asked me the questions you'd expect from a caring father just reunited with his son. The key moment of the exchange came when my Dad asked me if I wanted to do it again and I answered in tears, with "Yes!"
The way I remember the moment, my tears surprised us both, and neither one of us knew what to do with my expressing intense emotion—especially tears associated with elation. As near as I can recall, we didn't talk about what that meant in the moment, nor did we discuss it at a later time. To be clear, my father didn't do anything wrong and this is not an unpleasant memory for me. But it was a remembrance of overwhelm.
My father, of course, was from an earlier generation—from a time when there were far fewer models for males being emotionally expressive. The way I've pieced it together, his alcoholism (which got progressively worse as he aged) was closely related to his struggles to find acceptable ways to express his feelings (people are much more accepting of a maudlin drunk than a guy who weeps at chick flicks). While his sarcasm masked his love, I always knew it was there.
What a precious memory my counselor helped me find! And it came from those foggier earlier years with Dad, the ones that I remember less well—the ones that have been mostly masked by my anguish as an adult trying to find his own way.
My Dad may not have known what to do with his feelings, but he clearly had them and he tried to figure it out. I reckon my take away here is it's never too late to feel and, more importantly, it's never too late to heal.
Thanks, Dad, I needed that.
Maybe it's time for that new laptop after all.